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Human Rights Day 2023: Time to Recognise a Right to Clean Air for All

December marks the alignment of two major anniversaries of human rights and air pollution. In this blog on environmental rights, Hannah Blitzer, Senior Policy Officer, Wildlife and Countryside Link argues that the time is now to recognise the right to clean air and a right to a healthy environment.

December 2023

This month marks the alignment of two major anniversaries on human rights and air pollution. The 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an opportunity to consider how we can keep the rich tradition of protecting human rights in our country alive. On the other hand, the 70th anniversary of the “Great Smog of London” is a lingering reminder that we need to get the rights landscape up to scratch for modern environmental realities.

For years, parliamentarians, activists and academics have been calling for better air quality legislation to address illegal levels of air pollution as an environmental justice issue. Exposure to air pollution comes with debilitating physical and economic impacts. Outdoor and indoor air contaminants cause lifelong health issues including lung cancer, anxiety and respiratory disease like asthma. With the annual mortality from air pollution estimated to be between 28,000-36,000 deaths per year and the annual cost of air pollution cost the UK economy £20 billion a year, the time is now to recognize a right to clean air for all.

Ella’s Law

A right to clean air in England and Wales is within reach. In May 2022, Baroness Jenny Jones of Moulsecoomb introduce the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill in the House of Lords. The Bill is named after Ella Adoo Kissi Debrah, a nine-year-old child from South London who died in 2013 following exposure to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter air pollution above World Health Organization (WHO) standards. She is the first person in English history to have air pollution ruled as a cause of death by a coroner. Ella’s mother Rosamund has led an inspirational campaign to build awareness of air pollution health risks, and to make the case for addressing those risks through the Bill.

Ella’s Law would establish the right to breathe clean air and require the government to set up a commission that would oversee government action on air pollutants. It also amends the Environment Act 2021 to incorporate missing elements such as air quality target limits in line with WHO guidelines. This is desperately needed considering numerous national reporting zones (urban areas) in the UK are above the WHO recommended levels. In its reviews of pollutants and limits, the commission must have regard for the needs of sensitive groups such as children and the elderly, as well as the need to address elevated pollutant levels in geographic pollution hotspots, indoors and on public transport.

Politicians and the general public are aware of the scale of the air pollution problem. Most agree that “something must be done” to prevent unnecessary harm to human health and the environment from air pollution.

Clean Air and Environmental Rights

Beyond its immediate impact on people and nature in local areas, clean air is also vital component of a healthy, flourishing environment. Our lives depend on this vital ecosystem service. In July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The right can already be found within constitutions, national legislation and regional treaties across the world.

The right to breathe clean air and the obligation to protect vulnerable people from the impacts of air pollution is an important aspect of an entitlement to a healthy environment. Although these rights should be treated as autonomous of each other, it is important to recognize that we cannot fix the air pollution problem without also committing to a healthy environment for all.

With this in mind, Link is asking political parties to include the Environmental Rights Bill in their General Election Manifestos. The Environmental Rights Bill would create a human right to a healthy environment and create a new duty on relevant public authorities to act compatibly with that right in decision making. You can read more here.

For now, efforts are ongoing to secure progress on Ella’s Law in the current Parliament. The petition asking the Government to find the time to take Ella’s Law through the House of Commons is live until 14 December. If you support the right to clean air for all, please considering signing the petition and writing to your MP.

You can read more about Ella, her legacy and Ella’s Law here.

Dr Hannah Blitzer is a PhD in Environmental Law (Right to Healthy Environment) and Senior Policy Officer at Wildlife and Countryside Link. Follow @WCL_News

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.